Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $1,000 AT A GLANCE Plus Clear, crisp sound Cool, retro design Can drive efficient speakers to reasonably loud levels Minus Hi-res Bluetooth requires LDAC source Pricey THE VERDICT TEAC&rsquo;s stylish, computer-friendly integrated amp is a great option for both desktop and living-room listening. Integrated amplifiers designed for use both on the desktop and in the listening room are a niche category that we&rsquo;ve looked at before, most recently in reviews of Elac&rsquo;s $699 Element EA101EQ-G and Cary Audio&rsquo;s AiOS. But of all the hi-fi manufacturers working this space, TEAC is the one that embraces it most enthusiastically.
Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $2,995 AT A GLANCE Plus Neutral sound from Class A/B amp Upsamples and converts PCM and DSD Compact form factor Minus Futuristic design means no mechanical controls No wired headphone output THE VERDICT Cary Audio&rsquo;s all-in-one system looks great, sounds great, and is packed with cutting-edge features. Cary Audio is known in the high-end audio scene for making vacuum-tube and solid-state stereo components, and the brand has also established a foothold in the home theater world with its Cinema 12 preamp/processor and multichannel amplifiers. Cary&rsquo;s AiOS (All-in-One System) is the first offering in the company&rsquo;s Lifestyle series. With built-in aptX Bluetooth, wired Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity, AirPlay and PhoneShare support, and onboard Tidal, Spotify, and vTuner streaming, the AiOS really does have everything you need to immediately start playing music. Just download the company&rsquo;s iOS/Android app, connect speakers, and you&rsquo;re good to go.
MusicCast WX-010 Speaker Performance Build Quality Value MusicCast WXA-50 Amplifier Audio Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $500 (amp); $200 (speaker) AT A GLANCE Plus Streams to MusicCast devices Wi-Fi, AirPlay, Bluetooth 55 watts per channel, Class D Minus No headphone jack on amp No analog input on speaker Loaded PC may freeze app THE VERDICT The Yamaha WXA-50 has a clean and lively sound, a space-saving form factor, and the ability to stream to devices using the company&rsquo;s MusicCast system&mdash;including the reasonable-sounding WX-010 wireless speaker. If you are the intended audience for the Yamaha MusicCast WXA-50 amplifier, you find A/V receivers too big, black, and boxy. You are happy with two-channel sound but turned off by doghouse-sized stereo amps sitting on the floor. Soundbars may give you Bluetooth, but that isn&rsquo;t enough. You&rsquo;re willing to accept the architecture of a conventional home audio system&mdash;amp, speakers, sources&mdash;but on a more modest scale. And because you live in more than one room, you want a system with multiroom smarts. That&rsquo;s the WXA-50 stereo integrated amp and MusicCast multiroom system in a nutshell. To make things interesting for this review, we threw in a couple of Yamaha&rsquo;s latest WX-010 wireless speakers in additional zones.
Audio Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $899 AT A GLANCE Plus USB inputs for PC and iOS Premium Wolfson DAC Bluetooth aptX Minus No DSD decoding No Wi-Fi, AirPlay, or Ethernet No streaming services THE VERDICT The Rotel A12 accepts direct wired input from PCs and iOS devices and gets the best out of both digital and analog sources with its great-sounding DAC and amp. Connecting a computer to an audio system with a USB cable seems a perfectly logical idea. It&rsquo;s simple, it&rsquo;s direct, and it enables the computer to feed bits to the system and rely on the system&rsquo;s digital-to-analog conversion. Yet this desirable feature is tantalizingly rare. AVRs and streaming amps tend to rely on wired and wireless network connections rather than on a USB port and asynchronous digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that can take over the clocking functions of the digital bit transfer and reduce the effects of jitter.
Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $699 AT A GLANCE Plus Good power in compact form Outstanding app-enabled subwoofer auto-setup Onboard 192/24 USB DAC Minus No line outputs for external amp Small display THE VERDICT Elac&rsquo;s Element EA101EQ-G amp/DAC nails the sweet spot of price, performance, and worthwhile features with surprisingly audiophile sound and the added value of auto-EQ and app-enabled subwoofer crossover/blending. It&rsquo;s an amplifier. It&rsquo;s a USB DAC. It&rsquo;s a room/subwoofer equalizer. It&rsquo;s a headphone amp. It&rsquo;s an app-enabled Bluetooth receiver. It&rsquo;s all of these, and it&rsquo;s only $699&mdash;and it&rsquo;s from the revived German brand Elac, whose latest Andrew Jones&ndash;designed loudspeakers have won acclaim in these pages and elsewhere. Ultimately, Elac&rsquo;s Element EA101EQ-G may be best characterized as what the stereo receiver is morphing into for the 21st century.
PS Audio Sprout Performance Features Value Teac AI-301DA Performance Features Value PRICE PS Audio: $799/TEAC: $549 AT A GLANCE: PS Audio Plus Phono input Line input and output Warm, engaging sound Minus No remote control No direct DSD decoding AT A GLANCE: Teac Plus Six source inputs Dedicated sub output Remote control Dynamic and transparent Minus No stereo line out THE VERDICT These compact, versatile, and affordable combos will drive good bookshelf speakers or headphones to audiophile heights, each with its own sense of style. It&rsquo;s certainly a thing. It may be a trend. Or possibly even a wave&mdash;a new-wave, high-res groundswell sweeping over the nation&rsquo;s small but growing (we hope!) cadre of youthful audio fans. I&rsquo;m talking about ultra-compact integrated-amplifier/digital-to-analog converters: &ldquo;ampDACs,&rdquo; I&rsquo;m calling them. The newly evolved species combines a two-channel integrated amplifier (usually of modest power), a headphone output (usually), and high-resolution audio digital-to-analog conversion, all engineered to meet audiophile expectations of quality, and all packaged into a single, paperback-sized unit conceived for versatility. (Most models, including the two under review here, add today&rsquo;s ubiquitous Bluetooth wireless capability.)
Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $799 AT A GLANCE Plus High-performance Wolfson Audio WM8671 DAC handles signals up to 192 kHz/24-bit AccuBASS designed to restore depth to compressed audio sources Automatic input switching Minus Runs hot Lack of front-panel controls may be problematic for some installs THE VERDICT This terrific amplifier and DAC solution improves sonics in a small package. The quest for audio simplicity has come far closer to becoming a reality with the introduction of music streamers from the likes of Sonos and Apple. Now just connect one of these devices to an audio system, and you’ve got an entire world of music literally at your fingertips. However, these components aren’t exactly revered for their terrific audio qualities, and many dress up the sonics by running them through an outboard DAC before connecting to a quality amplifier. But in space-challenged places like an office, kitchen, or bedroom, this can be easier said than done.
Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $7,500 AT A GLANCE Plus Superb sonics from high-resolution digital sources Substantial amplifier power Unusual looks; fine finish quality Minus No headphone or other additional outputs Un-ergonomic remote controller THE VERDICT Reference-quality sound from hi-rez music files made simple&mdash;at a reference-grade price. What form will the Audiophile System of the Future take? It&rsquo;s an open question, though it&rsquo;s a pretty fair bet that the pallet-loads of tube power amps and skyscraper speakers of the high end&rsquo;s golden age will not return any time soon. One proposed answer, from Wadia Digital, is the Intuition 01 power DAC, a swoopily formed oblong that incorporates very substantial two-channel amplification (190 watts x 2 into 8 ohms, rated), highly sophisticated digital-to-analog conversion facilities, and basic input-selection and volume controls.
Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $499 AT A GLANCE Plus Fine performance and sound Elegant looks Clear value Minus No mute control Limited detail in volume readout THE VERDICT As an integrated amplifier/DAC combo for serious listeners, the D 3020&rsquo;s audio quality and value are unmistakable. Audio types old enough to have viewed Chevy Chase&rsquo;s pratfalls live rather than on demand may remember an unprepossessing integrated amplifier from an unfamiliar brand. The NAD 3020, despite a power rating laughably modest even in 1978 (20 watts per channel) and next to no features, gained notice because, as the lore went, &ldquo;it sounded great.&rdquo; And it did&mdash;thanks to intelligent amplifier design, a conservative power rating, and the value&mdash;widely underappreciated, then and now&mdash;of dynamic headroom.
As you might have gathered from the headphone roundup we did a couple of weeks back, there's probably never been a better time to be into personal audio. With a whole new breed of enthusiast listeners out there, rabidly interested in headphones and the accessories that make 'em a better experience and willing and able to upgrade given the relatively low cost of admission, a host of audio firms new and old have been churning out new and innovative 'phones and accessories so quickly that it's been a little difficult to keep up. Taking a look at the landscape of affordable (let's say under $500), you'll find that afistful of new headphone amps and DACs are bringing once-esoteric features to the masses, at down-to-earth prices.